The number four seems to play a major role in the Pesach Seder. We have four questions, four sons, four terms of endearment and, of course, one of the major features we soon will be enjoying – the drinking of four cups of wine.
The Mishnah is very specific about those four cups, requiring the community to see to it that even the poor have them, even if it comes from public charity (Pesachim 10:1).
Since the Torah says nothing about wine in describing the Pesach ritual, the question arises as to the origin and meaning of this practice. Why wine at all and why four cups?
To begin with, wine does appear in the Torah in ritual contexts. It was used as libations on the altar (Exodus 29:40) and was considered a special drink that caused people to rejoice.
As we read in Psalm 104:15, “And wine makes the heart of man joyful…” This is why it was taken from the Temple rite into the synagogue and the home, so that Kiddush is recited over it, as are Havdalah and the Birkat Hamazon. Weddings are also solemnized with wine and it is used in the ceremony of the brit milah.
It would only have been natural, then, for the festive Pesach meal, like any holiday feast, to begin with wine and conclude with it. Two cups.
However, at the Seder the third cup is associated with maggid – the telling of the story. The fourth cup is recited over Hallel and is a special addition unique to the Seder.
Different explanations were offered in the writings of the sages, the gaonim, and the later rabbis as to the significance of the number four. Among them are: four expressions of redemption, four empires that oppressed Israel, four cups of punishment of those empires, four cups mentioned in connection with Pharaoh, four cups of fury, four cups of salvation, four decrees of Pharaoh against Israel, four exiles.
The most popular and most generally accepted explanation was that the four cups stand for the four promises of redemption that God uttered: I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements, and I will take you to be My people (Exodus 6:6-7). The Hebrew words are vehotzeiti, vehitzalti, vegoalti and velakahti.
Once these four promises had been accepted as the reason for the four cups, the question arose about the fact that there was a fifth expression of redemption in Exodus 6, verse 8 – “And I shall bring you to the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” – veheiveiti.
And so Rabbi Tarfon taught, “On the fifth cup one finishes the Hallel and says the Great Hallel (Psalm 136).” This is found in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Pesachim 10:1, and also in the manuscript reading of Pesachim 118a.
This is also probably the origin of the Cup of Elijah. Since not all were agreed that we should drink a fifth cup, it was set aside until Elijah would come and decide that issue and all other halachic issues. It may be that the majority of the sages demurred because that promise was painfully unfulfilled after the exile of the year 70 CE. That may also explain why in the verses elucidated in the Haggadah, the verse “He brought us to this place and gave us this land” (Deuteronomy 26:9) is absent.
Both Rav Amram Gaon and the Rambam mention using the fifth cup, though they see it as optional but not required.
Rabbi Menachem Kasher, in his edition of the Haggadah, strongly advocates the drinking of the fifth cup. The Cup of Elijah can be passed to all the participants as the fifth cup.
Rabbi Kasher believes we have been privileged to live in a time when the fifth expression of redemption has actually come to pass, as the Jewish people have returned to their own land and established the state of Israel. Therefore, it is right and proper that we drink a fifth cup to recognize that reality and express our gratitude and thanksgiving to God for it.
Considering that so great a sage as Rabbi Tarfon advocated the fifth cup and that such great authorities as the Rambam and Rav Amram Gaon permitted it, it would seem that not to drink the fifth cup would be an act of ingratitude to God for the partial redemption represented by the state of Israel.
How many cups does it take to express our gratitude to God at the Seder? I believe the answer is five.
By Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher is dean of students at the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem.